KABUL - A suicide car bomber and Taliban militants disguised in burqas attacked a compound housing hundreds of foreigners in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, officials and witnesses said. The Taliban said the attack was a response to President Barack Obama's surprise visit just hours earlier.
At least six people were killed in the early morning assault, officials said, as blasts and gunfire reverberated from the privately guarded compound known as Green Village that houses hundreds of international contractors.
The attack began around 6 a.m. in eastern Kabul with a series of explosions and gunfire. Shooting and blasts continued for hours later as militants who had stormed into the compound held out against security forces, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The area appeared to have calmed down by about 10 a.m. and NATO said all the attackers had been killed. The gate at the entrance of the Green Village was destroyed, with the wreckage of the suicide bomber's car sitting in front. The road running past the compound was littered with shoes, books, school supplies and the bloody ID card of a student from a nearby school.
The attack was the second major assault in Kabul in less than three weeks and highlights the Taliban's continued ability to strike in the heavily guarded capital even when the city is on its tightest security for a combination of events — the Obama visit and Wednesday's anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan.
The suicide car bomb that exploded near Jalalabad road — one of the main thoroughfares out of the city — was among the first blasts in Wednesday's attack, said Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi. A station wagon that was driving past was caught up in the explosion and four people inside were killed, Sediqi said. A passer-by and a Nepalese security guard were also killed, said Kabul Deputy Police Chief Daoud Amin.
A young man who saw the explosion said the dead pedestrian was one of his fellow classmates.
"I was walking to school when I saw a very big explosion. A car exploded and flames went very high into the air," said 21-year-old Mohammad Wali. "Then I saw a body of one of my classmates lying on the street. I knew it was a suicide attack and ran away. I was so afraid."
A local resident who saw the attack unfold said the attackers were disguised in burqas — the head-to-toe robes worn by conservative Afghan women.
"A vehicle stopped here and six people wearing burqas entered the alley carrying black bags in their hands. When they entered the alley, there was an explosion," said Abdul Manan.
The explosions happened hours after Obama left Afghanistan after a quick visit to mark the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. He spoke to troops and signed a pact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to govern the U.S. presence in Afghanistan through 2024.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was planned Tuesday night as a response to Obama's trip.
"This is a reaction to Obama's visit to Afghanistan," Mujahid said, without elaborating.
However, because such complex attacks usually take significant advance planning, it is also possible that the Taliban were capitalizing on fortunate timing. Mujahid said the target was a "foreign military base."
NATO forces spokesman Capt. Justin Brockhoff said there were no indications that any NATO bases were under attack.
The Green Village complex, with its towering blast walls and heavily armed security force, is very similar in appearance to NATO bases in the city. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw a group of Afghan soldiers enter the Green Village compound, after which heavy shooting could be heard coming from inside.
Outside the complex, men could be seen carrying a wounded man covered with blood, apparently pulled out of the flames engulfing a nearby car.
"These people evacuated a man from the burning car, two bodies are laying there now and three or four other victims were evacuated from the school," said Ahmad Zia, a resident who saw the explosion.
Green Village was also the target of anti-foreigner protests following the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in February. At that time, violent protests raged outside, but the angry crowds did not breach the compound's defences.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.